Kevin DeYoung / May 15, 2016 / Exodus 15:22-27
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Sermon Summary / Transcript
O Lord, your word is more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold. It is sweeter than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. By your statutes we are warned; in keeping them there is great reward. Keep us innocent from hidden faults. Protect us from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over us. Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. In Christ, we pray. Amen.
Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.
There the LORD made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.”
Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water. Exodus 15:22-27
As I’ve been saying for months, Exodus is about the God who makes himself known. We’ve seen that theme over and over again. We’ve gone from Moses saying, “Who shall I tell the Israelites has sent me to you?” and Pharaoh saying, “Who is the Lord that I should listen to him?” to a different question: “Who, O Lord, is like you among the gods?” There is none like YHWH—majestic in holiness. God has made himself known. We’re going to see that theme throughout the rest of the book.
Now we begin to see another theme emerge. What does it mean to follow this God who has made himself known? I want you to see something very important after verse 21. It’s going to be hard to spot, so look very carefully: the book doesn’t end. It’s not over after verse 21. It goes on to verse 22. In fact, we’re only about a third of the way through this book.
Some of us live the Christian life as if we get to Exodus 15:21, and that’s it. “We’re saved! We’re delivered! We’re set free! Hallelujah! Let’s sing! End of story! Heaven, here we come!” Though the Exodus is through, it’s far from over. They’ve left Egypt and crossed through the Red Sea, but now we have the rest of the book.
It’s really instructive for us in the Christian life. The last couple of weeks, we’ve seen redemption—redemption through the Red Sea and then a whole song about redemption. We don’t just fold it up and say, “Wasn’t that a great story? Redemption, and they live happily ever after. Praise God! Let’s go on our way.” There are 25 more chapters. We don’t just need to see the God who makes himself known; now we have to know what it means to follow him. It’s not like God to deliver us, and that’s the end of the story—or the rest of the story is non-stop celebration for that deliverance, as if there was no other story to be written except the story that has already been told. No, there are stories yet to be told. There are things that God has yet to teach his people. We need to understand this.
God has saved most of you here. Maybe we have some visitors—some people checking out the church and Christianity. We are very glad you’re here. Most of you, though, are probably members of this church and believe in Jesus Christ. You love these songs. God has saved you, but he’s not done with you. He wants to shape, change, teach, help, and refine you, and show you what it means to have him as Savior and Lord.
In a way, you could explain the transition in Exodus that way. YHWH is a great Savior. “We love God, our Savior.” Anyone who would have him for a Savior must also have him as Lord. Why did Moses tell Pharaoh that he needed to let the people go? So they could go into the wilderness and do what? Worship and serve the Lord their God. It was not to be set free from service to Pharaoh so that they then might become autonomous servants of themselves. We always serve someone or something. They were going from the service of a tyrant to the service of a Father.
I want to show you three lessons this morning about how things work in the Christian life. Not all of these lessons are how things ought to be, but all of them are how things are. These are three realities you can count on in the Christian life—the first one to avoid, the second to expect, and the third to hope for.
Grumbling Often Follows Grace
This lesson is the one we want to avoid. Sadly, none of us do. You see in verse 22 that “Moses made Israel set out”. I wonder what exactly is behind the wording. Were they ready? Were they not? Did they say, “Oh, Moses. This is a great celebration. We want to stay here on the banks of the Red Sea and sing! Let’s have Miriam and the women do some more tambourine and dancing! This is the life!” And Moses says, “It’s time to go.” Maybe they wanted a break. Maybe they wanted to keep celebrating. But it was time to move.
If you know the rest of Exodus, you know that it wasn’t ultimately Moses’ decision. It was the Lord’s. Remember the pillar of cloud and fire that led them to the Red Sea, seemed to pin them between the sea and the Egyptians, and then protected them and led them through? We know from the end of the book, in Exodus 40, that the pillar continued to lead them in all of their journeys through the wilderness.
So this is God saying, “Alright. It’s time to head into the wilderness.” The northern part of the Sinai peninsula was a sparsely populated desert region, and they did not know where they were going—so they grumbled.
Think of all that they had seen in the past months. They had seen staffs turn into snakes, and then those snakes swallowing up other snakes. They had seen the Nile river turn to blood and frogs come out, then gnats, flies, livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death (I’m sure you all remember the order of the plagues: “Be forever grateful for lasagna because haggis looks definitely disgusting”). They had seen all of that, day after day and week after week. You’d think they were even talking among themselves: “What’s it going to be next? We wake up, and look: it’s disaster upon the Egyptians. Well, how are we doing? We’re fine.” And then God leads them, and just as it seems that all hope is lost, as they are trapped between the sea and the army, the most unthinkable of things happens: the whole sea opens up. There’s a wall on the right and left, and he leads them through on dry ground. Then, as the army is chasing them, he pours back the water and swallows up the Egyptians.
This great God—the Lord, Jehovah, YHWH—had made himself known through the plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea. They had seen all of it! And it took three days for all of that grace to turn into grumbling. They wanted something to drink. That’s understandable. It’s not a bad question. But they ask it in a spirit of complaining. It’s not a problem to bring our problems to God. “Cast all your cares upon the Lord, for he cares for us.” The sin is bringing them with a raised fist instead of an open hand.
Aren’t verses 24-25 striking? Moses, crying to the Lord, accomplishes more than all of the Israelites’ grumbling. Think of the arithmetic here. They had been set free from 400 years of slavery. They had seen 10 plagues. They had witnessed 100 percent of Pharaoh’s best men swallowed up in the sea. And it took three days to forget all of that.
Let’s be honest. Some of us ought to be thinking, “I’m surprised they held out three days. I could get about three hours.” That’s all it took. Why did they falter so quickly? Why do we so quickly go from Amazing Grace to astonishing grumbling? Well, think about the Israelites. They didn’t know where they were. We have a hard time when we don’t know where we are. Perhaps if God or Moses had laid out a map or itinerary for them, or had given them something they could look at on their phones and have some understanding of where they were, they might not have complained so quickly. But they didn’t know that. Slavery in Egypt became attractive because it was living by sight. This YHWH business was living by faith. They’d rather take the slavery they knew than the God they couldn’t see.
We grumble: “Okay, God. i don’t exactly know where we are in this journey.” They didn’t know where and they didn’t know why. If you’re in a hospital to deliver a baby, I’m told it’s painful. It’s so hard on the husbands. We sympathize so much. But it seems to be very painful. I think that’s a safe assertion. At least you know why you are there. You know what that pain is about, what it’s producing, and where it’s headed. It’s a far different kind of scary when you’re rushed to the hospital with unexplained chest pains. They didn’t know why this was all happening, and they didn’t trust the one who was leading them.
What we’ll find in this initial wilderness wandering is that the Israelites will grumble. They never grumble directly against the Lord, but don’t think he was fooled by that. Maybe they felt like that wasn’t appropriate. “We’re too spiritual for that. But what in the world is this guy, Moses, thinking?” We find other people to direct our grumbling to. Maybe it’s to our leaders, friends, authority, or parents.
Why do teenagers start having a hard time putting up with their parents? Because when a young person turns 13, their parents automatically become dumber. It’s amazing how it happens in sync. As they turn 13, at the same time as they are getting smarter, their parents are getting infinitely dumber. So there is a lack of trust. If you’re 5 or 10 and you’re upset or don’t like something, there can generally be a sense that “Okay, they are mom and dad.” But when you get to a certain age, they don’t know what they are saying and doing, which is why you grumble.
It’s one thing to do a hard thing when you are following someone that you have absolute trust in. “I may not know why they’re doing it, but I trust that my commanding officer knows what is best.” And you do it. It hurts, but you keep doing it. But when you lose that trust, the grace becomes grumbling.
Can you see why grumbling is such a serious sin? No matter whom you are directing it toward (your leaders, your parents, your whatever), it’s ultimately a grumble about God. “God, you can’t be trusted. You don’t do all things well. You don’t know what you’re doing. You haven’t thought this through.” They didn’t know where they were. They didn’t know why they were where there. They didn’t trust the one who was leading them. They didn’t like their circumstances. They were facing a new adversity.
You can understand that they had probably already drank all the water that they had brought with them for this journey into the wilderness. They fed it to their animals, and now they’re running very low with their canteens and skins of water. And at the moment when they are getting parched of thirst, they spot a water source. You can imagine the excitement as the front of the camp passed the word back. “Water, water, water!” But it was water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. When they got there, as the first animals or people went and maybe scooped it up—“BLAH! This is terrible. This is brackish, bitter water. We can’t drink this stuff!” It didn’t just have a little aftertaste—a little iron in it or something. It was undrinkable. You can imagine their disappointment. Obviously, we don’t complain when everything goes our way. “God! I’m so angry! Too many blessings!” It’s when we face adversity.
A groan is one thing, but a grumble is another. The Bible is full of groaning. Romans 8 says that we groan along with all of creation to be set free from this bondage to decay. A groan says to God, “This is really hard.” A grumble says to God, “You are really hard.” A groan says, “God, I would like something different.” A grumble says, “God, I wish you were someone different.” There are lots of groans in the Bible. There are lots of grumbles too. But they’re sins. Three days is all it took for all that grace to turn into grumbling.
I think I can say with confidence that this is a sin that all of us are guilty of. Grumbling is a sin we universally dislike in others and invariably approve of in ourselves. It’s so easy to spot in others, and we don’t like it. No one ever says, “Meet my new friend. Oh, she’s wonderful! Grumbles all the time!” No, we don’t like that. We don’t want to be around people who are complaining and down, like Eeyore all the time. We like Tigger and bouncing around. But we don’t see it in ourself.
We see it in our kids. Parents you’ve had this experience. You take the kids on a wonderful family trip. It takes lots of your time, energy, and money. You head to Disney World, Great Wolf Lodge, a week in Chicago, or to see the monuments in DC. Or you go to Hawaii, and you don’t want to come back. Or you take a wonderful trip to the United Kingdom. And what happens? It doesn’t take three days. I’m giving it minutes to seconds. “Why do I have to sit here? I’m so hungry. When are we going to eat? That’s my iPad. There’s nothing to do. Why did we ever go? When are we going to be back?” Grumbling, grumbling, grumbling. And you’re driving and saying, “Be quiet and like it! This is wonderful! We are making memories!”
You see it so clearly in your children, and you get so frustrated as parents. “Don’t you see lots of grace in your life? Don’t you remember how we just did this thing, and it was amazing? I told you it was amazing! You believed it. I made you believe it. It was amazing! And we just did that! We went to Disney World and did the whole thing, and it takes thirty seconds for you to be on the next complaint. Don’t you remember any of that? Can’t we just bask in that?” That’s why parents do summer vacations, kids, because they foolishly think that you’ll be in a good mood for the rest of the summer. It doesn’t work that way. We do it because we love you and we want to have fun. And sometimes there are fun moments in it.
Grace becomes grumbling so quickly in our kids and (let’s be honest, parents, adults, and the rest of us) in ourselves. When do we grumble? We grumble when neither past provision nor future promises have any bearing on our present pain. We’ve forgotten everything that the Lord has ever done for us. None of that matters. We forget all that he’s done. We don’t think of any of our future promises—all the things that he promised to do: to be with us, to never forsake us, to give us an inheritance, or any of that. We don’t know anything about our past. We don’t know anything about our future. All we can think about is present pain. It’s incredibly human and we all do it.
The Lord doesn’t just says, “Tsk, tsk, tsk. You need to be nicer people.” What he wants us to do is remember all of that history of grace, believe all of those promises of pleasure, and to have that. It will not eliminate all of the groaning, but it’s meant to mitigate the grumbling.
Testing Follows Triumph
We want to avoid the first reality, though we probably won’t. The second one we expect. Remember that one of Moses’ demands all along was to go into the wilderness. Now it was a reality. What did God have for them in the wilderness? Well, he wanted to teach them something. This is so often the pattern in the Christian life. First, victory. Second, singing. Third, testing.
This is the first time in Exodus, and the second time since Genesis 22 (with Isaac and Abraham) that God has tested someone. We see the test in verse 26:
If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer. Exodus 15:26
Don’t misunderstand what this test is about. These are not requirements for salvation, but for a people who have already been saved. We have to remember where they are: on the other side of the Red Sea. The Lord did not lead them to the banks of the Red Sea, put the army behind them, and say to the Israelites, “Listen: I am going to keep the Egyptians at bay, but I want you to stay here for forty years. If you can keep my statutes for forty years, I am going to part the Red Sea and let you be free.” That’s not what he did. He saved them unilaterally, of his grace and mercy.
Now, as a people saved out of Egypt, on the other side of the Red Sea, God says, “Here’s what I want you to do.” This was about sanctification, not justification, to use the theological terms. It was about fellowship, favor, and blessing. It was, among other things, the Lord’s way of saying, “Israel, I love you. You’re my people. I’ve saved you. We can do this the easy way or the hard way.” Israel began a history for themselves of preferring to do things the hard way. It’s a history that many of us have followed.
You see the promise at the end of verse 26. Don’t misunderstand it. It’s not a promise of universal health and ease—that no one among the Israelites would ever get sick or die. It is specifically the absence of the plagues that came upon Egypt. The same promise appears in Deuteronomy 7. The opposite promise (the warning) appears in Deuteronomy 28. He’s not promising that nothing bad will ever happen—that no one will ever die or get sick. He’s saying, “Look, you’re my people, but don’t think that the Egyptians were the only sinners in Egypt. You know how to sin too. I love you. I saved you and redeemed you. You are my people. But here’s the test: I want you to listen to me, do what I say, and walk with me in faith, repentance, and obedience. If you do that, things are going to go well.” It’s not completely without suffering, but things go better when we do things God’s way. “Or, if you want to do things the Egyptian way—to not listen to me, be stubborn toward me, and be hardened in your heart toward me—then you are going to get the God of the Egyptians. What do you want to do, Israel?”
Do you see what’s happening here? God is testing them by reintroducing the beginning of the Ten Plagues to them in a much less severe form. What was the first plague? The Egyptians couldn’t drink the water. What’s the test here? They can’t drink the water. What happened with the first plague, when the Nile River turned to blood? Moses put a stick in it and it turned back. What happened here with the water that they can’t drink? God says, “Moses, I want you to throw a stick in it.” And they’re able to drink it.
God was testing them. “I have saved you. You are my people. Now listen: how do we want to do this, Israel? I can do the same sort of plagues that came upon Egypt to you. Here’s a little test. You’re going to be thirsty. We’re going to find some water. Just like the bloody Nile river, you can’t drink this water—and just like the first plague, I’ll make it so you can drink.” It was gracious of God to give a grumbling people what they did not deserve.
He is teaching them that liberty is not meant to lead to license. The Israelites needed to realize that their God was not a personal genie, a talisman to wear around their neck, or a rabbit’s foot to put into their pocket. They might have been tempted to think that. “Here we have YHWH. He’s on our side. When we get into a jam, he gives plagues. He takes care of things. We walk through rivers, waters, and walls. He takes care of everything. This is great! This God obliterates our enemies. Whatever we do, he makes life easy for us.” They needed to learn that that’s not what it’s like to follow God in the world.
God being for your soul does not make him indifferent to your sin. Sometimes we think, “Well, if God is really for me, he never even sees anything I do.” No. If you’re his adopted child, he is infinitely and always for you—and since he is for you, he cannot be indifferent to your sin. The Israelites were tempted to make the same mistake. They wanted to go straight to Canaan—from grace to glory. But there were no shortcuts, just like there are none for us. We have to travel through the wilderness if we’re going to make it to the Promised Land. That’s the lesson. That’s the first thing he wants to teach them. He’s going to need to teach it to them over and over, just like he has to teach us.
So the question becomes: will you keep singing when the triumph turns to testing? It’s one thing to sing on the banks of the Red Sea, “The Lord has thrown his horse and his rider into the sea. He has triumphed gloriously over our enemies!” That’s a great song. But will you keep singing when the triumph turns to testing?
When John led us so wonderfully on Friday night with some songs, we sang a lot of hymns with this same theme.
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side. Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain. Leave to thy God to order and provide; In every change, He faithful will remain. Be Still, My Soul—Jean Sibelius
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul. It Is Well with My Soul—Horatio G. Spafford
Jesus, I my cross have taken, All to leave and follow Thee; Destitute, despised, forsaken, Thou, from hence, my all shall be. Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken—Henry Francis Lyte
Can you keep singing the songs of Zion when the triumph turns to testing? It does make you think of Psalm 137. “How shall we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land?”, as they are captives in Babylon. It’s hard. We’re strangers, aliens, and exiles in this world. We’re beginning to realize that more than perhaps we have before. This is not your home. People are going to think you’re strange. They’re going to think all sorts of weird things about what you do and believe. How do you sing those songs of Zion in a foreign land? How do you sing the songs of triumph when you’re in the season of testing?
The test is really quite simple: listen, do, give ear, keep. Four verbs. Does it remind you of the Lord at the end of Exodus 2? We had those four glorious verbs from God, when the people were crying out because of their harsh bondage and slavery. It says that he remembered, he saw, he heard, and he knew. Do you see the connection? God is saying, “When you needed me, and all hope was lost, I remembered you, saw you, heard you, and knew you.” Now he’s saying: “I’ve saved you. You’re my people. I want you to listen, remember, hear, and know me.” Triumph is often followed by testing.
Elim Follows Mara
This third reality is to be hoped for. ‘Mara’ is the word ‘bitter’. The water there was brackish, which was why they named the place that. God was gracious there to a people who didn’t deserve it, who grumbled against him and Moses. Not only did he turn the water from bitter to sweet, but he led them from Mara to Elim. Elim has come to mean a place of rest, healing, plenty, and prosperity. Sometimes you see a Christian school, hospital, or organization with that name.
Notice what they find there (verse 27): twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees. Surely those numbers are not by accident. There were twelve tribes in Israel and (we know from when they go up the mountain with Moses) seventy elders. It’s not simply that each tribe gets a little pool and the elders are all claiming their palm trees. It’s symbolically there to testify to God’s absolute provision for his people. “I know how to take care of you. You got Mara, and I’ll lead you to Elim. I’ll give you water—one for each of the tribes. I know how many tribes you have. I’ll give you a palm tree—one for each of your elders. I know how many elders you have.”
God is gracious to send both seasons of prosperity and adversity. After a success, he often sends Mara. You need to be humbled. After a time of Mara, he eventually brings an Elim. We need both: one to make life sanctifying, and the other to make life bearable. I’m sure that some of you feel like your whole life is trapped at Mara. You feel like you’ve been in the wilderness a whole lot longer than three days. You sympathize with the Israelites, who would end up there for 40 years.
Here’s the lesson though. When your life is at Mara, don’t forget God, because he hasn’t forgotten you. Do you believe that Elim comes after Mara? Isn’t it the hopelessness and despondency that makes our suffering even worse? Suffering hurts. Pain hurts. It’s when you expect life to be all sunshine and roses, or when you don’t have any hope any longer, that this bitterness will ever become unbearable. We are not meant to be a hopeless people. God promised there would be suffering, but he wants us not to grieve as those who have no hope, but as those who know of the resurrection of Christ.
Do you believe that God has better things in store for you—hopefully soon, always later? What we see in the rest of the Bible is that there is even more important water for us than H2O. Even more important than relief from the bitter waters of Mara is respite from the bitterness of our sin.
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled… Hebrews 12:15
That’s the danger. Not just water, but life, soul, and spirit. You can become so embittered that you stay at Mara and say, “Nothing could ever happen. Don’t even bother with the law. We’re not even moving from here. My life is Mara.” You’re bitter toward an ex-spouse, an ex-friend, your parents, or your children.
Are you in the gall of bitterness for failures or sins? Give this to the Israelites: at least they knew they were thirsty. There are a whole lot of people in the world who are dying of thirst and don’t even know it. We are all, to one degree or another (in this life) toiling at Mara, looking for Elim. Even on the best days, we think there must be sweeter water somewhere, even with all the blessings, favor, and joy in this life. God wired you to long for and look for that place—to not be satisfied at Mara, but to long for an Elim you didn’t even know existed, where there are twelve pools of water, seventy palm trees, and perfect and final fulfillment for you.
I hear the Savior say, “Thy strength indeed is small, Child of weakness, watch and pray, Find in Me thine all in all.” Jesus Paid It All — Elvina M. Hall
Will you come to Elim? Will you come for the first time? You’ve never ever trusted in Christ. Or will you come for the hundredth time? You’ve come back. Will you come? Think of all the times in the Bible that God beckons you to come. You don’t have to be thirsty.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Isaiah 55:1
“Come!” The Bible says. What does Jesus say in John 7:37? “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” Would you come? That’s the call of this God—the God who makes himself known and reveals himself to us, that we might know what it means to follow him. The constant refrain—throughout the beginning, middle, and end of all our wilderness wanderings—is, “Come! You are thirsty. That’s what the test was about. Come to the water,” as Isaiah says. “Come to me and drink,” Jesus says. You know what we find, finally, in the very last chapter of the Bible (Revelation 22)? “And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” Come. You don’t have to live at Mara. You don’t have to live in Egypt. Cross the Red Sea. Follow this God as he leads you finally, eventually, to Elim, where you can drink.
Let’s pray. Father in Heaven, give us the faith to follow you—to not only trust you as our Savior, but to follow you as our Lord—to walk in the wilderness wanderings—to follow you on this journey—to believe that you can make all things that are bitter, sweet. We look forward to all that you have prepared for us. In Jesus, we pray. Amen.